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Given all the buzz about Avatar, I really wanted to see this in the theater. Of course, thanks to that same buzz, I had a pretty good idea what to expect: beautiful effects coupled with a relatively unoriginal story.

There’s been a lot of criticism about this one.  Over at i09, Annalee Newitz  criticizes it as a white man’s guilt movie. Others describe it as a mutant love child of Ferngully, Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and the Smurfs.

Valid points, but they miss one very important question: All those mind-blowing special effects, and your subtitles are in Papyrus font?  Really?

Moving on to more serious (and spoilery) thoughts, in no particular order…

Terrorism.  Colonel Scar comments late in the movie, “We’ll fight terrorism with terror,” or something to that effect.  Implying that the Na’vi are the terrorists.  (We do see evidence that the Na’vi have been attacking the equipment, and Neytiri was ready to put an arrow through Jake.)  So in this movie, the terrorists are the good guys?  Fascinating … and it makes me wish the movie had the courage to explore this more directly.  Instead, the Na’vi’s terrorist acts are off-screen.  The humans move into the terrorist role, blowing up the tower tree, and Jake leads the Na’vi in a more “honorable” battle.  (See David Forbes’ review here for more on the terrorism theme.)

Aliens. I wanted to see some. The USB port is a nifty idea, but these people laugh, smile, cry, and kiss. They hunt with bow and arrow.  They’re heterosexual (as far as we see, at least) and monogamous for life. Okay, that last is a bit alien.  But basically, they’re big blue CGI humans.  I’ve had coworkers who were more alien.

Story. Predictable.  “Oh, that must be how they’re going to transfer Jake into his Na’vi body at the end.”  “Oh, so Jake’s going to have to level up to master dragonrider to redeem himself.”  The latter piece bugged me.  Only five Na’vi — and the chosen one, Jake Sully — have ever figured out that all you have to do is fly higher?  Sorry, but that was way too easy.

The Chosen One. I don’t mean Jake Sully. Sure, Jake rode the dragon and rallied the troops (half of whom promptly got mowed down by machine guns).  But Grace was the one who merged with the tree of souls.  Depending on how you interpret Jake’s prayer scene near the end, Grace is the one who shared that direct knowledge with the hivemind.  When Pandora wakes up and starts trashing bozos, I see Grace as the key character, and I wish the movie had done more with that.

Unobtanium.  Really?1

White Man’s Guilt.  Blatant parallels to North American colonization history here.  Blue stand-ins for Native Americans?  Check.  Technologically advanced civilization wiping them out in order to plunder?  Check.  Schools to teach the natives English?  Check.  Romanticized view of “how we were meant to live”?  Check. But this time, the white man is also the savior, allowing me to feel good about myself.

It does make sense for Jake to have a key role.  He’s the one who knows what the Na’vi are up against.  He should be involved in the planning.  But the idea that in 3-4 months, he goes from clueless human to the Awesomest Na’vi Savior?  Now we’ve gone from SF to fantasy.

Pandora had the ability to save itself, and did so.  (See my paragraph on Grace’s role.)  Jake wasn’t needed in the savior role.

ETA — Sexism: Was hurrying to get this post written, and forgot to include this one. Thanks Catherine for jogging my brain.  Jake “becomes a man,” and is now entitled to choose a woman.  The movie never goes anywhere with this aspect of Na’vi culture, but damn — there’s an awful lot packed into one line.  (As a good guy, Jake of course gives his intended the right to choose/consent.)

 Overall: Enjoyed it.  Suspect it might drag a bit when seen on DVD.  (Too many “behold the nifty” scenes.)  Worth seeing for the effects.  Papyrus font not too distracting after the first few minutes.

Comments and thoughts welcome, as always!

  1. I’m told this is supposed to be an inside joke. Sorry, but no. When 90% of the audience doesn’t get it, and when a good portion of those people are kicked out of the movie to roll their eyes, then your joke has failed.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

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( 116 comments — Leave a comment )
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jhetley
Jan. 11th, 2010 02:44 pm (UTC)
Can't be a "white man's guilt movie" -- Real Men don't have guilt.
jimhines
Jan. 11th, 2010 02:49 pm (UTC)
Touche. But it would be too wordy to describe it as a "White man sleeps with your princess, conquers your bad-ass dragon, and unites your world with the power of his Awesomeness movie."
(no subject) - jhetley - Jan. 11th, 2010 02:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
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mtlawson
Jan. 11th, 2010 02:52 pm (UTC)
I’ve had coworkers who were more alien.

That's a scary thought.

Blatant parallels to North American colonization history here.

A lot of mass migrations and/or empires were created this way. Sure, we look at it and see Europeans vs Native Americans (or Europeans vs Africa), but it could just as easily be Romans vs Gauls, Islamic Empire vs Byzantines/Germanic Tribes, Chin Dynasty vs Rest of China, or Mongols vs Everybody. Not that it makes it right, only that we're putting our own stamp on the movie because of what we know. You could even argue that the destruction of three Roman Legions by Germanic tribes at the height of the Roman Empire could be used as a basis for the way the movie turned out.

Considering that some conservative commentators are upset with the film because it's anti-American and anti-right wing, I'd give the whole thing a tempest-in-a-teapot "meh".
jimhines
Jan. 11th, 2010 02:56 pm (UTC)
True, and I'm definitely seeing it through my own cultural lens. On the other hand, the face painting + long black braids + archery + a few other factors felt specifically like the Hollywood "Native Americanish" tribe.

There's definitely an anti-military/anti-corporate tone, but I thought it was interesting that they commented early in the movie that these were *not* Marines anymore.
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cathshaffer
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:01 pm (UTC)
Pretty much agreed on all counts. With regard to the whole white man's guilt plot--it's no worse than Dances with Wolves, really. I think they could have done better with the basic story template, but whatever. I think Jake was supposed to be someone who succeeded because he was naive--he did not have the preconceptions and expectations of either the anthropologists or the scientists. He mastered dragon riding not because he was smart enough to fly higher, but because he was stupid and desperate and, frankly, his body was expendable. However, they didn't develop these angles very well. I thought less time should have been spent on Animal Training 101, and more on Character Development 801. I also felt like we missed half the movie, because it started at a point when human/Na'vi relations were already screwed up.

Totally agreed on Unobtainium. Not only did 90% miss the joke, but the 10% who got the joke don't find it clever, just lazy.

We were dying for Sigourney Weaver to get inside the mechanical suit. Could they not have thrown us that one tiny bone? Come on!!!
jimhines
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:05 pm (UTC)
"We were dying for Sigourney Weaver to get inside the mechanical suit."

Yes! From the moment they showed one of the mechs. That would have been a much better inside joke than Unobtanium!

I agree it's no worse than Dances with Wolves. I think it's the fact that we keep reusing the same plotline, combined with the fact that Avatar could have been so much more.

I think starting earlier could have worked, and would support my desire to highlight Grace's role instead of Jake's :-)
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Jan. 11th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dr_phil_physics - Jan. 11th, 2010 06:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 11th, 2010 08:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - theguindo - Jan. 11th, 2010 07:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bookishdragon - Jan. 11th, 2010 10:36 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - beccastareyes - Jan. 11th, 2010 03:18 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - barbarienne - Jan. 11th, 2010 05:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
nathreee
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:16 pm (UTC)
What do you mean inside joke? How did anyone not get that bad pun? It's about the same level as knock-knock jokes... I'm too old to find that funny.

I'm not going to comment on the movie's story, just like I won't comment on the story in Transformers. If I wanted to go see a movie with an interesting story-line, I wouldn't have gone to see Avatar.

Moving along...
cathshaffer
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:21 pm (UTC)
The "inside" part is that science fiction writers have been using the term "unobtainium" for decades to describe the plot device wherein there is a rare substance of critical importance that must be "obtained" in order to save the world (or whatever). For a writer, the use of this term came off as "Hey, how do you like this old joke I am recycling because my Hackneyed Plot Device is totally Hackneyed and I am too lazy to try to build any real scientific justification or credibility around this concept. Hey, who likes basketball?"
(no subject) - wldhrsjen3 - Jan. 11th, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 11th, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kenllama - Jan. 11th, 2010 03:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
tygerversionx
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)
I loved the movie, but I've been calling it Dances With Smurfs for weeks now.
kenllama
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:19 pm (UTC)
I was really disappointed by the lack of apparent natural history of the planet. Chiefly:
1) We don't link USB ports when we make love? Really?
2) The Na'vi are evidently the only folks who link up with others, and there only for the purpose of dominating physically superior species. What is the evolutionary percentage of this extraordinary development if none of the other species use it, nor is it evidently used in species-internal dynamics. There's some really cool social stuff that should be happening here, and its absence testifies to Cameron's lack of meaningful understanding. The single-purpose use of that should-be-defining characteristic is somewhere between baffling and squicky.
cathshaffer
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:22 pm (UTC)
This is what my 10 year old was complaining about. (Point 2, not point 1, LOL)
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 11th, 2010 03:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
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asakiyume
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:31 pm (UTC)
It's easy to connect with a big blue human - it's much, much harder to connect with a sentient creature that looks and smells like a giant cockroach.

Yes, exactly! That's one thing I liked about Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds, too. The Ohm creatures were scary and destructive--and *yet* you came to have sympathy for them and to appreciate them.
(no subject) - beccastareyes - Jan. 11th, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
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jimhines
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC)
You know, there's this whole simplified conflict in the movie. "Scientists are the heroes, and the mercenary/corporate/military guys are evil." And yet, in the end, it's the Marine who has to save the Na'vi through a military solution, leaving science ... a bit impotent. One more reason I'd love to see Weaver in a more central role.
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Jan. 11th, 2010 03:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
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asakiyume
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:28 pm (UTC)
Papyrus font?? Seriously? I laughed when I read that.

I get embarrassed by overly simplified moral conflicts. There's no way anyone could approve of the bad guys' stance in this movie (except, I guess, if they're the conservative portion of the audience that my kids and mtlawson have told me about--but those people, I'd argue, are influenced by associating back to the things that the movie stuff is supposedly (and head-bashingly obviously) symbolizing or referring to.) I dunno... then I have to ask myself why I wasn't so critical of Star Wars--after all, *that* didn't have complex moral conflicts, either. But maybe somehow it wasn't trying to? I don't know; it sounds like, by bringing up the whole clash-of-cultures thing, this movie is trying to do more--but in the end all it really is is good guys versus bad guys, and the good guys win. Which is fine, for what it is.
mtlawson
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC)
Just so people don't think I'm just pulling it out of my hat, here are a couple of links to get you started on the "conservatives bashing Avatar" direction:

From www.collegenews.com

From LA Times Blogs
(no subject) - asakiyume - Jan. 11th, 2010 03:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sixteenbynine - Jan. 11th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
samhenderson
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:29 pm (UTC)
I am so happy someone else noticed the Papyrus font!
jimhines
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:34 pm (UTC)
I must shamefully confess that I use Papyrus on my business card. I defend this by pointing out that I write light fantasy novels about nose-picking goblins, and so a dignified font would be inappropriate.
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mela_lyn
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:49 pm (UTC)
I skipped reading all your spoilery stuff... my parents saw it and thought it was amazing so mommy is taking me this afternoon once she wakes up from her nap on my couch. (She works midnights as a nurse.) :) We'll see...
jimhines
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:59 pm (UTC)
I try to stay unspoiled for movies, but there was just so much buzz and commentary about this one coming in from all sides, I just gave up.

I thought there were a lot of problematic aspects, and it could have been a much better movie, but I still enjoyed it. Hopefully you'll have a good time!
(no subject) - mela_lyn - Jan. 13th, 2010 02:57 am (UTC) - Expand
sixteenbynine
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:50 pm (UTC)
The crappy font on the poster was, amazingly, one of the first things that caught my eye in a bad way.

The more I hear about the film, the more excited I get about "RoboGeisha" coming out domestically.
jimhines
Jan. 11th, 2010 04:00 pm (UTC)
In looking up the IMDB page on RoboGeisha, I'm amused that it recommends the 1980s Transformers movie in their "If you liked this, you'll also like..." section.
(no subject) - sixteenbynine - Jan. 11th, 2010 04:21 pm (UTC) - Expand
shanrina
Jan. 11th, 2010 04:00 pm (UTC)
I'm not all that into special effects so I wasn't really excited for it, but one thing really put me over the edge into the "I don't want to see this" camp. That thing was actually the promos--the only thing they emphasize is the special effects. I would still have no idea what the plot was (or that Sigourney Weaver was in it) if I hadn't read reviews and blog entries about it, because they just weren't emphasized. And when filmmakers downplay the actual plot of the movie they're trying to get you to see, that's usually a bad sign.

It's entirely possible that I just happened along all the wrong promos, though. I didn't see any theatrical previews because the only movies I've seen in theatres recently (as in since at least 2008) were Bollywood. No Avatar promos there.
jimhines
Jan. 11th, 2010 04:03 pm (UTC)
When I was trying to decide whether to bring my daughter along, I pulled up the first trailer I could find from the Apple site.

It was boring. Basically a droning guide to Pandora, showing us these nifty creatures and effects (which lose most of their impact on a small computer screen), with absolutely nothing to do with any story at all.

There were other trailers out there that had a bit more story hook to them, but I definitely see your point. In a lot of ways, story felt like an afterthought.
acetachyon
Jan. 11th, 2010 04:01 pm (UTC)
I thought it was just a fun, popcorn, eye-candy movie. Yeah, there was the Dances With Wolves storyline but overall, it was enjoyable.

Anti-corporate? More like anti-corporate idiots. Cameron already gave us Weyland-Yutani's Burke in Aliens and showed us what he thought of the guy. As Hudson put it: "I say we grease this rat-f*** sonofa*****."

Anti-military? Not really, IMO. Remember the Colonial Marines? They were the good guys. They just got most of their butts handed to them by xenomorphs.

And I see Cameron continues to give us a kick-ass female soldier in Trudy. Clearly cut from the same cloth as Vasquez.

Sigourney in a battlesuit. Yes, I also wish Jimmy Boy threw us this bone. or did a variant of the "Get away from her, you *****!" line.
realmjit
Jan. 11th, 2010 04:23 pm (UTC)
Don't forget the dash of Battle of Endor for the endgame.
jimhines
Jan. 11th, 2010 04:26 pm (UTC)
Yes! "Never go against a Sicilian the Ewoks when death is on the line!"
(no subject) - acetachyon - Jan. 11th, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Jan. 11th, 2010 04:47 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - acetachyon - Jan. 12th, 2010 01:44 am (UTC) - Expand
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(no subject) - acetachyon - Jan. 12th, 2010 01:49 am (UTC) - Expand
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